What is the Right Age for a Child to Start Traveling?

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A popular thing that new parents and even parents-to-be ponder is what is the right age for a child to start traveling. This is one of those questions that everyone has an opinion on  – especially as it relates to little ones still in the age range where they may cry, kick airplane seats, or unexpectedly get sick everywhere. The best answer I can think of to this common question, only has a little bit to do with the child, and has everything to do with the parent.
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The right age for your child to start traveling is really when you are ready to travel with them. Traveling with a child, or children, bares very little resemblance to traveling without children. It is an entirely different activity that isn’t necessarily worse, but is simply very different and requires a non-trivial amount of work both before travel and certainly while on your trip. This is especially true with young children, which I will presume are the ones in question when someone asks what age is the right age for children to start traveling.

Here is a look at how travel changes after a kid joins the crew.

A very different travel look than in our pre-kid days

A very different travel look than in our pre-kid days

A trip with young children is not a vacation. It is doing everything you do for your children at home + 89 other things because you aren’t in your routine at home + trying not to have your kiddo impact others – potentially cooking, depending on your lodging choices. We actually had a great family trip to Mexico when our second daughter was just two months old, but it was largely just a (very nice and very welcome) change of scenery and not a “margaritas in the sand” Mexican vacation.

Relaxing for a bit in Mexico with a two month old

Relaxing for a bit in Mexico with a two month old

Now I’m not saying that two months old is the right time to start traveling with a child, though I personally wouldn’t advise starting before then unless there is a strong need to since until then your sleep schedule and recovery from birth may not even be settled enough to hit the sky or road.

While my real honest answer as to when is the best age to start traveling with a child really relates back to when the parent feels up for the adventure, there are three “better than average” times to start traveling with your child that I’ll also mention.

Start traveling with kids when they are old enough to sleep okay, but still young enough to lay around and sleep a lot. 

From about 6-8 weeks old until about 3 or 4 months old, many babies still sleep a lot, aren’t mobile, and are generally relatively easy to pack up and take on a trip. Of course they won’t really get much out of the trip beyond being potentially entertained in the moment (as our 3 month old very much was at Disney World), but if you want to go somewhere, this is a decent age range in which to take them along, assuming you get your pediatricians okay.

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Snoozing at Disney

The one very big asterisk I want to add this age range is if your kiddo is “colicky” or having any sort of issue that makes day to day functioning more difficult than normal, then a trip at this age really won’t be a great choice as you simply won’t have the extra energy to devote to it. Sit tight and wait out that newborn storm until it passes.

Swimming in Mexico

Swimming in Mexico

Start traveling with kids when they are three years old and potty trained.

There is a very, very magical thing that happens at around three years old when a toddler becomes a little person who can go to the bathroom in a potty and express their needs with words. This makes pretty much everything about life easier, including travel.

The magic of three years old and potty trained!

The magic of three years old and potty trained!

Our travel with our first daughter really took off when she was about 2.5 years old and potty trained as taking her along wasn’t just something we had to do because she was our child, but it actually became really fun. She could understand where we were going, express opinions about what she wanted to do, and was able to understand the basic rules of flying in planes, sleeping in the hotel room, etc.

Kids may not form permanent memories of trips they took at three years old, but starting around that age, the family travel scales can tip from being more work to being more fun.

Start traveling with kids when they are “school aged”. 

Another magical transition happens around the time the kids are school aged in kindergarten or first grade at about 5 or 6 year old. Not only are they verbal and potty trained, but they have more stamina, don’t usually take naps every afternoon, don’t need a stroller (except at Disney World), rarely break down in tears for no apparent reason, and can understand what will happen in a given day and on a given trip. They are also old enough to actually take part in lots of fun activities such as skiing and horseback riding!

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Big adventures with school aged kids

Not only do they understand what will happen, but they can read books with you about where you are going and take an active role in planning. By 5 years old they are also old enough to go to almost any kid’s club that a resort or hotel may offer. This gives them a chance to play with other kids and it gives you a chance to “vacation” for a few hours.

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By 5 or 6 years old they are also most likely making lasting memories on family trips with you, even if they may not remember every single detail of the trip.

She still remembers dancing the hula in Hawaii years ago!

She still remembers dancing the hula in Hawaii years ago!

There is no wrong age to start traveling with kids as long as you are up for both the fun and the challenge that comes along with it, but I would say that those three phases are good places to start with when considering what is the right age for your family. I will also add that you can always start small with a road trip a few hours away for a weekend or going to visit family where you will have plenty of reinforcements before deciding to book a flight all the way across the country or further. I’m a big fan of “small victories over big failures”. Dabbing your toe into what it is like to travel with your kids can be the perfect way to see what type of adventures your family is, or even isn’t, ready for quite yet.

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…yes, they grow up quickly!

How did you decide when was the right time for your kid to start traveling? Did you wish you had started earlier or waited longer?

Editorial Note: The opinions expressed here are mine and not provided, reviewed, by any bank, card issuer, or other company unless otherwise stated.

Comments

  1. Get out of my head. Just pulled the trigger on a transatlantic award fare for later this year which will feature the as-yet unborn little guy as a lap child. Figured if we didn’t pull the trigger we’d come up with a reason not to when he was born (though we can still cancel and redeposit if he’s colicky or if we don’t feel ready). I’m sure this can all go horribly wrong . . .

  2. A lot depends on the reason for the travel. If it’s Christmas with the family in Maryland, pretty much no age is too young. If the goal is to have true interaction, you have to go older. For a child to not only enjoy, but remember the experience, you’re looking at about 6 or older. A couple of additional factors are whether there’s someone who can care for the child if you leave without them, and distance. A quick nonstop to Cancun isn’t too bad for pretty much any age.

  3. For truly adventurous trips, I’d say 6 (or close). At 5 they seem to start registering what they are doing and seeing. They are able to participate more. They have reasonable likes and dislikes, opinions about activities. They can sit still and behave. We did lots of domestic trips before that age, and even a few easy European trips. Having learned with our oldest two (now 17 and 14), we waited until our youngest was 5.5 before a big South Africa + safari trip for a month. All the kids at that point were easy travelers (5.5, 12, 15). We LOVE traveling with them now (to the point that they actually groan when we say “Mexico!” or “Scotland!” or “Maui!” LOL. We rarely travel as a couple without them (maybe once every other year). They make our trips so much more interesting and exciting and adventurous.

  4. I’d say it depends on the trip. Soon as they could walk we hit places that were “different” than home area: amusement park, zoo, beach, places with snow. Remember you made a commitment when you had them and that the travel is mostly about them for the next 18 years, at least – nothing better than seeing the thrill a 3y old gets running into and out of the ocean waves. We waited until ours were 10 and 13 to go more than a few hours away (so that we could get back quickly if necessary). Our first big trip was Europe. They are avid readers including Harry Potter and mythology so we did London, Rome, Athens so that it would appeal to them. As early teens they also like Mexico’s all-inclusives.

  5. Excluding of east/west coast plane ride, my son took his first trip on Dec 2015, been to 8 different countries since that first trip. It does get easier as we become better at it and he gets tougher as he has the energy to stay up till about 7PM while we do the death marches around all the different cities.

  6. My daughter took her first trip at 4 days and we have been moving ever since. She is 3 now and travel is SOO much better. She participates more. We are taking our first round trip over an ocean this summer. I’m super excited for all the mommy daughter time.

  7. I think 8 weeks is ideal for time zone change travel to a beach you/ relaxed location. You’re on a weird schedule anyway and if the baby isn’t colicky, they are so portable. Traveling while they are still nursing is great – less fear.

    Most people hate the age, but I loved doing a trip with my first at 15 months. We did Scotland from the East Coast. Napped in the car everyday, so no scheduling issues. Mobile enough to try moving around, but got tired easily and went back to the stroller. Also did Spain with a 3 year old and a new walker. Worked out great and we took siesta with the kids!

    I think you should be strategic about where you travel with kids when they are young. We targeted places where we thought people were more tolerant of children and what comes with them. In that respect, I think traveling outside of the US can be easier when they are young.

  8. It depends… we found it super easy to travel when our daughter was an infant, we went to Hawaii when I was on maternity leave, our kid was 4 months and it was perfect. We went another time when she was 16 months and we decided to wait until she was almost 3 to travel again. Our kid could barely stand the car for 15 minutes, so to keep our sanity we traveled without her during this time. Now, we’ve been traveling pretty consistently since she’s turned 3 years old – she will be 5 years old in May and were headed to Europe in June.

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